By Ron Brocato, Clarion Herald Sports
The path on which Dr. Joseph Murry’s journey took him to realize his full potential in athletics and academia began when he was a high school student at St. Aloysius.
The seed was planted by the words of his senior English teacher, Sacred Heart Brother Clement, who told the class in 1964 that he was the only Brother of the Sacred Heart who had achieved a doctorate, and he was proud of that accomplishment.
Murry, recently retired as principal at Holy Cross High School, retraced his odyssey from an apprehensive high school student during the tumultuous era of rebellion, rock’n’roll, the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam in his self-published book,”Coming of Age.”
It tells of his desire to be a successful athlete and his decision to do so at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (today known as ULL).
“I guess this is where fate began to play a role in my life, because my college selection process was not based on any rational criteria like academic ranking or college major or any in-depth research about programs of study,” he said. “Instead, it was based on my desire to connect with athletics, and in some way, fulfill an unsatisfied urge to pursue a successful career in track and weightlifting.”
Murry said he knew, deep inside, that he had the talent to succeed, although his high school athletic career was disappointing and lackluster due to a series of circumstances and mishaps.
He was exposed to athletics by three former St. Aloysius stars who became coaches, Don Landry, Bobby Nuss and Al Nastasi. And he trained with weights in his father’s garage.
But for all his work, Murry said his athletic career never flourished.
Back then, weight training was not popular. But it did help him to discover his best event would be the shotput. Through reading Strength and Health, a muscle magazine, Murry discovered that USL, located just 2 1/2 hours from New Orleans, was the twice-reigning national weightlifting champion.”
That was the school most capable of fulfilling his desires. It was also ranked by another national magazine as one of the nation’s top “party” colleges. But that was hardly an influencing factor for a serious young man with something to prove to himself.
Track and weightlifting, he thought, would be his ticket to a scholarship and success.
There he met head track coach Bob Cole.
“I guess I must have told him my background, career goals (of some day being a coach), but most importantly wanting to prove to myself that I could succeed in college as a shot putter,” Murry said. “I’m sure that I shared my faltering success in high school and my unfulfilled desire to letter in track, and I’m sure I told him about my success in throwing some 52 feet (which was an exaggeration), as most coaches would see that as good potential and foundation for college success.”
Cole told Murry to simply “come on out.”
Murry said he was surprised how incredibly easy it was to make the USL track team. But he wasn’t aware that, like all freshmen, he was on the squad as a walk-on. Yet he had the sense of belonging to a team and practicing with them. It would be strictly up to him to earn a spot.
Murry was introduced to the “Dungeon,” a small, cement-walled room that was stocked with one platform, one squat rack, one power rack and two sets of weights. And, by the way, no air conditioning.
Murry said he was stunned. “This was the place that had produced those national championship weightlifting teams?” Yes it was, and the “Dungeon” would be his domain of penance for the next four years.
The Aloysius connection
Al Nastasi was a football and track star at St. Aloysius and USL. He went on to become a prominent coach in both sports at East Jefferson High until he retired in the ’90s.
Murry recalls Nastasi’s philosophy in his book:
“I knew Al Nastasi from another life. Al was a stellar athlete and a role model for us younger guys at the time.
“Being around Al brought back memories of home and those early days at St. Aloysius on the blacktop on Rampart Street. It seemed like the Crusaders were always the underdogs, and we had to fight a little harder to get to the top.”
Murry noted that Nastasi was as much a role model at USL as he was in high school.
“Al was more than an assistant coach; he was a senior leader of the track team. He was practicing for his future role as a high school coach,” Murry wrote in Chapter 4, “A Whole New World.”
By his first college meet, Murry proved to himself that he was a competitor. He placed second in Beaumont, Texas, with a personal best throw of 45 feet. Southwestern won the team trophy.
The team would go on to win four Gulf Coast Conference championships. Cole was named GSC Coach of the Year in 1965. And Murry went from a non-factor to the winner of the Joseph A. Cambre Non-Scholarship Athlete of the Year honor.
“I had cast off the shell of that ‘wannabe’ and became that new person – the real me. I had not only broken out of my shell, but I was becoming that champion that I always wanted to be,” Murry exclaimed. A partial scholarship came with the honor.
New battles to be won
Murry’s love of weightlifting gravitated him to that sport, although it wasn’t a sanctioned sport by the NCAA, but more of a “club” competition.
That didn’t sit well with Coach Cole, who told Murry to choose between the two.
“I thought this quite bizarre,” Murry wrote. “I was the one who freely chose to try out for both teams, and I was the one who was putting in the work to contribute to both teams. What was even more ironic was the type of training necessary for success in weightlifting was also the type of training that created explosive power necessary for success in the shotput.”
Murry was able to keep his clandestine weightlifting training from Cole until he suffered
a weightlifting-related back injury. Cole said nothing. And through his junior year, conference championships kept mounting for the track team, but Murry had not attained his personal goal of an individual title.
“I think what I liked about being part of the weightlifting team was that immediate level of acceptance of anyone who walked into the ‘Dungeon.’ Here were a bunch of guys who no one would ever have expected to be national champions in their sport. They were just a group of local guys who trained very hard without much fanfare in a facility that was subpar by today’s standards,” Murry noted.
The competitions were sanctioned by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), and the competitors were from athletic clubs, YMCAs or were lifters unattached to an organization.
Murry had his eyes on winning a national weightlifting title. He had already pressed more than 400 pounds in training and knew he had the ability to compete at a higher level.
“What I knew about myself and what I had proven over four years of track and weightlifting competition was that I was a ‘gamer,’” Murry wrote. “I always rose to the occasion and performed better in competition than I had in training.”
On the night of competition, Murry pressed 390 pounds, 40 pounds more than his opponents. He added another 390 pounds in the clean and jerk and 300 in the snatch. The numbers held up through the competition, and Murry and the four teammates who competed at USL held up the national team championship trophy for a fourth time.
Murry’s subsequent victories in both the Collegiate and Junior National Championships qualified him for the 1968 AAU Senior Championships.
“That’s about as big as it gets in the weightlifting world, other than the Olympic trials,” he said. He pointed out how he failed on early attempts at each weight but overcame his early failures with successes on later attempts.
In the end, Murry’s 1,035-pound total weight outmatched his competition, making him the 242-pound Senior National Champion. He was first to win the new weight class.
Murry set his sights on accomplishing his lifelong dream.
“I was even more intent on pursuing a doctorate degree, I think, because of the influence of Brother Clement.
“Somewhere along the way, the realization of changing the world and everyone being impressed with your experience gets somewhat tempered, because nobody cares about your experience and what you have learned. You soon learn that you must prove yourself all over again and work harder at a career than you did in your athletic endeavors.”
And Dr. Joseph Murry can retire knowing that he achieved every goal he set for himself.
He leaves after a quarter century as an educator in the Orleans Parish Public School System and at Holy Cross High School, where he had served as principal since 2004.
A true champion, indeed.
Ron Brocato can be reached at email@example.com.